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"Untested" Keir Starmer Is Ready For The "Presidential" Spotlight

Labour leader Keir Starmer speaking in Essex (Alamy)

7 min read

Labour's decision to put Keir Starmer at the centre of a presidential-style campaign reflects the party's growing confidence as the general election grows nearer, but this strategy is not without serious risks.

This week saw the long, unofficial general election campaign step up another gear, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer delivering speeches in London and Essex respectively. With Labour consistently far ahead in the polls, Starmer is widely expected to enter Downing Street later this year.

In Essex, a tie-less Starmer strolled around the Backstage Centre studio with his sleeves up and his entire Shadow Cabinet assembled behind him to set out his "first steps" if elected to No 10, echoing former US president Barack Obama and ex-Conservative prime minister David Cameron's styles of campaigning. The Tories, meanwhile, chose to spotlight the Labour leader specifically in Sunak's attack lines. 

A Labour source confirmed that the Starmer-focused, more presidential style was deliberate.

“We made a choice to do that," they told PoliticsHome. "People want to hear from someone who is the party leader, who is the candidate to be Prime Minister. He is putting his personal stamp very clearly on these first steps.” They said an accompanying poster campaign prominently featuring Starmer's portrait, which is already being displayed in marginal constituencies, portrays "someone who is ready to serve, his sleeves are rolled up, he wants to get to work for the British people".

But the biggest challenge for Labour now is whether Starmer alone is up to the scrutiny of an election campaign, and if Labour as a whole can get behind it enough to convince people to vote for him. 

While Labour has enjoyed large, double-digit leads over the beleaguered Conservatives in the opinion polls for well over a year, Starmer's personal polling has been regarded as mediocre.

"We know that one of the downsides of Starmer is people don’t really know what he stands for. His ratings are so-so, they are very middle of the road," said YouGov's Anthony Wells.

"Starmer doesn’t do terribly well in terms of his personal satisfaction and favourability ratings," added polling expert Sir John Curtice.

“He’s not just behind where [Tony] Blair was in the run up to 1997, but also Cameron in the run up to 2010. In so far as one of the potential weaknesses of the Labour position, it would be a lack of enthusiasm for the leader. People are just unmoved either way."

But Curtice believed that people's lukewarm reception of Starmer so far actually justified now putting him front and centre of the campaign. "Trying to sell him as an individual, and inject a sense that he has direction and isn’t just greyness, makes sense,” he added. 

After a troubled few years for the Conservatives, most of its MPs will at least privately admit that they are likely to lose the next election. But they also cling onto a hope that Starmer's apparent lack of charisma and connection with the public remains a saving grace for the Tories' chances of narrowing the gap with Labour once the election is formally called. 

"There's no love for Starmer", or some version of the statement, remains very common among Tory MPs and campaigners. Labour currently leads by an average of 20 per cent, according to Sky News' opinion poll tracker. 

The Conservatives responded to Starmer's Essex event by accusing him of being dishonest — an attack they have used regularly and that will almost certainly feature heavily in their election campaign. Responding to the launch, Tory party chairman Richard Holden said Starmer had "broken every promise he’s ever made" since taking charge of Labour, like the pledges he announced while running to be party leader, as well as the ditched plan to spend £28bn a year on green investment.

One veteran Tory activist said they saw elements of former prime minister Theresa May's awkward public performance in Starmer, describing him as not a "natural communicator", and argued that a Labour strategy heavily centred on its leader could have the same negative effect May did on the Conservative party's 2017 general election campaign. While the Tories did remain in office that year, they ended up having their parliamentary majority reduced to the largest party in a hung parliament despite starting the campaign way ahead of Jeremy Corbyn's Labour in the opinion polls.

“An election campaign for an untested candidate is a trial, and you don't know how they are going to respond until they've tried it," they told PoliticsHome.

"Theresa May had done a very senior job in politics for a very long time but she hadn’t been exposed to the level of scrutiny that comes with being the central figure of a national election campaign. That is also true of Keir.”

While they now acknowledged that the presidential style of campaign proved unsuitable for her, at the time it had felt like the right thing to do. "She was very popular, more popular than the party," they continued. "It seems now like the sensible decision to put him [Starmer] front and centre, but it might be something they regret.”

But several Labour figures say they have been preparing Starmer for this moment for a long time. They point to the work that has been done in recent months to communicate his backstory to the general public through devices like personal interviews in which he has discussed his upbringing and the challenges he has faced in his life.

"We were always trying to get him ready for this," said one ally. Labour figures also stress that while there has been a move to make Starmer more prominent, other senior party names like Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves will play very big roles in the party's election campaign.

Chris Ward, a former adviser to Starmer who now leads Hanbury Strategy's 'Labour Unit', believes one reason why the party feels confident enough to put its leader front and centre is that the Conservatives haven't fully nailed an effective way of attacking the opposition leader.

"This week they have tried to accuse him of being a risk to national security – this guy literally got a knighthood for national security,” Ward said. 

Wells, who heads YouGov's political and social opinion polling, said a campaign focused heavily on Starmer could have a positive effect for the opposition party if it is able to clearly convey his "competence". Opinion polls suggest this trait is where the Labour leader performs best with the public, and where the Tories are particularly damaged.

“If you were designing a party leader from scratch, if you were growing one in a tank, you’d want them to be inspiring, charismatic and capable of clearly setting out a bold narrative, as well as someone who looks competent, grown-up and reliable," explained Wells.

"Clearly, Starmer is better at some of those things than others, so Labour should play the hand that they have got.”

Curtice stressed that while the prospect of a presidential campaign poses questions about Starmer's ability to deliver, the state of Sunak's personal ratings mean the Conservative party cannot expect to run a successful campaign focused on him.

"The Tories can't campaign on leadership," he told PoliticsHome. "They have given us two prime ministers, both of whom they dumped, and now the third [Sunak] is as unpopular as his party.”

The Prime Minister's personal ratings were relatively strong when he first entered No 10 in late 2022, but since then they have fallen sharply. At the same time, Labour MPs (and some Tories, too) believe Sunak sometimes comes across as irascible and condescending in media appearances, and doubt whether he would benefit from a 'President Rishi'-style campaign.

The veteran Tory campaigner admitted having doubts about the extent to which Sunak could outshine Starmer once the general election campaign officially gets underway.

“A big part of this [Starmer's performance] is how it contrasts with the Prime Minister," they said. "They both fall into that slightly technocratic box, so the contrast isn't that great."

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